An archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle
The case opened when a statue of a white fist clutching two crossed arrows appeared one morning in Central Park. At first it was considered an AI malfunction. Sometimes industrial printers turned out strange things. The oddity was that the statue stood four stories high, evidently intended to be highly visible.
I heard about it as a short news item among many in my morning audio briefing. As I recall, I might even have chuckled about it. If so, I chuckled softly so the sound wouldn’t harm me.
A sweet mocha aroma filled the cold house as I pulled on trousers over my thin shanks and got lost in a billowing shirt the blue of pooled water in the desert. As I dressed, I imagined my ancestors sipping hot cups from the crests of starlit dunes. Trade had brought qahwah to the West, where birthday boys now sipped it after too much partying. I was not doing bad for a man nearing 160, though. So I told myself.
I raised the cup to toast me. Fe sahetek! Acrid blackness scorched my waiting tongue. May it restore the dead to life, inshallah. My temples produced a drum-like ache.
By the time I felt awake, having visited the docniche to chemically soothe my inebriated interior, the gigantic white hood had been found in Tennessee, and the outsized bundle of sticks tied with tape in Milan. Rumor had it that a huge metal elephant had materialized in Wisconsin. Alarm had replaced my amusement.
The expected call chime carried through my cluttered home. Khara, I cursed. Mentally, though, because in my office waited the holo of the director.
Ninety times out of a hundred, social disruptions ignite because some innovator gets possessed by the archetypal force of an idea and goes off on their own with it. We think of this as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice Problem: invention without sufficient reflection or collaboration. The usual result is a chaotic rash of unpredicted consequences. Not long ago, someone thought untested hover discs set loose without warning in London would be a gift to footsore pedestrians. These good intentions paved the way to bruised insteps and elbows. A minor example of the Problem, fortunately.
As a branch of the Terranian Constabulary, the Obligatory Revision Engagement Agency tracks innovations and, when necessary, slows them down by insisting on testing, collaborating, and analyzing potential negative results. Could a new financial instrument destabilize a community economy? Does a new educational method discriminate against anyone? Will a new technology make people ill instead of well? OREA gets its name and inspiration from the fabled Orea, or Norea, the woman who discovered that Noah’s first ark did not allow women aboard. So she burned it down.
Our methods are gentler, but we insist on collaborative prototyping. The paradigm of the lone genius, messiah, or revolutionary who will explain the world or fix a long-standing problem has never served humanity well. On all the projects and advancements that matter, we need to work together.
“Waa gwaan?” Alethia Jabari greeted me as I shuffled into my office and sat down. “Sleepless in Seattle?”
“Marhaba. No, birthday night. I was celebrating, sort of.”
“I’d say sorry I woke you but you look like you’re up. You’re getting the news?”
“Yes. Odd giant things just appearing. System-wide glitch?”
“They seem more like statements. Disquieting ones.”
Yes. The Know Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan, the Fascists, the Trumpers. I remembered the history. She, being Black, knew it viscerally, even after all the intervening centuries.
“I want you to find out which industrial printers went crazy,” she went on, “and how they were subverted, and by whom.”
It would, perhaps, have been nice to be able to look them up online. But history had taught us the dangers of too much interconnection. Unscrupulous people always either built the control centers or took them over.
I spent the morning contacting operators of printers large enough to have produced those strange objects. It was, essentially, the same holographic conversation over and over with heads and shoulders dancing above my desk. On their end, a tired old man with a prominent nose, brown eyes, and many wrinkles asked them questions through salt-and-pepper whiskers. I detected in their responses no ducks, evasions, or awkward pauses.
My government Special Investigator ID got me their recent records, for verification. I then contacted the regulatory agencies overseeing the printer cooperatives.
“We have a problem,” I told Alethia when I called her back. “No records whatsoever of any printer malfunctions in any of the target areas. In fact, no records of anything unusual having been printed at all.”
I interviewed witnesses, visited some of the sites by aircar, talked to printer manufacturers, browsed local news. I checked the Constabulary records for recent outbreaks of civic unrest. I looked through lists of industrial printer programming advances and consulted recent research. A skim of the relevant technological journals for news of inventions or innovations. Zero, zero, and zero.
Someone had printed up gigantic symbols of fascism, an ideology dead for centuries. Fascism required discontented people fearful of change, and there were none. With energy renewable and unlimited, democracy worldwide as well as local, and all material needs met, what was there to be paranoid about? Could it be some colossal prank initiated by a biologically destabilized technician?
I decided to sleep on it.
Many millennia ago, my priestly Egyptian ancestors had learned to ask for important information from their dreams. Go to bed with a compelling question held in mind, let yourself sink down, and see if the gods respond…
On a dark metal plain, I sit in a large circle of people. Flickers of red light form a fiery net connecting all our heads. We can hear each other think.
In the center, a black form assembles itself. At first its face seems like that of a lion, but it morphs until it towers before us as a giant three-sided pyramid, with one corner facing me.
From somewhere in the circle, a mentally networked man sends me a thought: “This is what I get for poking around for old machinery.”
In response, cruel inhuman laughter emanates from the dark pyramid.
In the morning, I drew a bath, thought, and reflected over coffee. At length, I asked Abrax, my home AI, to search for American printer experts with a background in archaeotechnology. Maybe I was taking the dream too literally. On the other hand, an idea had begun to coalesce, and it needed to be fed with facts, images, surmises, speculations, even mistaken conjectures. Throw what comes up onto the scales of surmise and see which side rises and which drops.
Four people fit the search parameters. I contacted them, sent my ID, and asked to meet in person posthaste.
Number Three, William Markus, seemed pleasant enough, a Caucasian man in his late thirties with deer-like eyes set in a boyish face below a Roman emperor haircut. I met him at his home on the San Francisco peninsula in what used to be known long ago, pre-Resource Wars, as the Silicon Valley. Once a den of technological archons, now it was mostly a park where eccentrics lived by themselves.
“Finding and resurrecting ancient technologies is a kind of hobby,” he explained with a short, barking laugh as his blue gaze met mine and looked away, met and looked away.
I glanced around his living room and saw examples: a telegraph, a Walkman music player, one of the original Macintosh home computers, a large mobile phone.
“They all work now,” he added, noting my interest. He seemed proud of them.
“We share an interest in artifacts, although mine run more towards the fanciful: alchemical apparatus, for instance.”
“Wasn’t alchemy an attempt to make gold from lead?”
“For some practitioners. They also worked as early chemists. However, alchemy emerged from Egypt as a wisdom tradition that endured for thousands of years.”
He nodded, pretending curiosity. I was discovering him to be the type of technologist completely immersed in his own preoccupations, with little mental room for others that seemed ethereal or impractical to him.
“Some of this,” I gestured at the gadgets, “looks like it preceded the Resource Wars.”
“Yes, there’s quite a lot to be found here and there, usually where the old cities stood. It takes some excavating, and not all of it is repairable. For some of it, the instructions have been lost and I have no idea what it is or what it’s supposed to do. –So you’re here to ask me some questions about printers?”
“Yes. Did you hear about those big structures recently found in various locations? Giant hand holding arrows, giant bundle of sticks, things like that?”
“Oh yes. Quite baffling.”
“I’m sorry to hear you say so. I was hoping you could tell me how someone could have pulled it off technically.”
“Well, in theory, a big industrial printer can make pretty much anything these days. We use them for projects that can’t be done at home: building ships, updating energy grids, repairing satellites, and so on. But it can’t be done without community authorization and oversight. Someone must have subverted that.”
“In a dozen locations around the world simultaneously? How is that even possible?”
“I don’t know. Their operators aren’t even connected. That would be illegal, as you know.”
“What about a secret local connection or two?”
“Even locally, someone would have to reprogram a printer that’s supposed to be carefully monitored and inspected. Wow, imagine if they had made a big bomb? Or released a poisonous gas?” He seemed genuinely horrified.
“Fascism is a kind of poison, a poison of the mind. Those were all symbols of fascism.”
“Whew. I didn’t realize that.” You would have if you had learned any cultural history, I thought. Evidently, it was only machinery that held his interest. No real accommodations for guests here in his living room, I noted; it was one large workspace. The chair I sat in had been fetched from another room.
“Why would anyone want to do that?” he asked.
“I couldn’t even guess. –May I ask one last question before I stop taking up your time?” I made to get up.
“Sure.” He did too.
“Have you unearthed any interesting old tech lately?”
I was rising as I asked, my eyes on the floor as I got up. My tone was exactly the same as for my previous questions. I listened, not looked, for a pause, a breath drawn in, or a tensing up.
He replied “No” without hesitation. But his tone sounded strangely flat compared to how he had spoken before. I looked up into eyes as dead as old camera lenses.
“Thanks so much for agreeing to meet with me last-minute.”
He abruptly came back to life. “No problem. It’s nice to have a break in the routine now and then.”
I walked across his lawn to my waiting aircar, lost in thought. The driver’s door opened upward.
Something was off. It took me a moment to see it. My carelessness with my mug of coffee had left a small stain on the seat. I had made a mental note to clean it up later. But the stain was gone.
I pressed the panic button beneath my thumbnail. Constables would close on my position within minutes if not sooner.
Nothing stirred from the house I had just visited. I circled to place the car between it and me.
When the OREA aircars appeared, the one parked in front of me closed its door and darted skyward.
They lassoed it, and then they landed all around me.
“Made this morning,” confirmed Helena, head OREA psychologist. She sent me the report. “Somebody scanned your car and printed a replica. Fortunately, not an exact one.”
Her image floated in front of me as a spare car flew me home. Her blonde hair glowed nearly white. I always fantasized it a halo.
“That word ‘somebody’ has become an annoyance,” I told her. “You’re completely sure Somebody is not Markus?”
“We’ve had him in for testing all morning. He isn’t lying when he says he knows nothing about why anyone would want to kidnap you. He was cooperative, if a bit passive. We turned him loose.”
“Bizarre,” she went on, shaking her head. “We live in a world without violence, and here it looks like Somebody is after you.”
Indeed. In our society, only children hit each other, and they receive counseling when they do. I wondered what the end of Somebody’s aircar adventure would have been like.
“Can I run a scenario by you? Think out loud a bit with you?”
“Say you were at home and you wanted a new bed. You have just recycled the old one. So now what do you do?”
“I build one with the home—”
“Even before that. Take me through it step by step.”
“OK. I describe what I want to the house and have it show me images until the holo looks right. Is that what you mean?”
“You describe it out loud or mentally?”
“You use visual images or inner ones?”
“I’m one of those people whose eyes like to see it.”
“I mentally order the house printer to put it together in the bedroom.”
“Very well. Now, let us imagine that you want to kill your partner. What stops you from creating a bed that can grow long metal teeth and bite her head off?”
“Do you often have thoughts like this?”
“Almost being kidnapped tends to bring them forth in me.”
“Well, aside from the fact that I bite her head off anyway when we fight, the mental safeties built into the house AI wouldn’t let me print something dangerous like that. –Are you sure you don’t need therapy for these violent imaginings?”
“My work is my therapy, or so I like to think. If you wanted to turn off the safeties?”
“Well… A programmer would have to do that by more or less redesigning the AI. But its basic functioning is monitored by the seller. So even then…”
“What if the seller is in cahoots with the programmer and you?”
“Doesn’t the AI licensing accord periodically inspect the seller?”
“Of course. But notice how many links this system of accountability depends on. We could mention others. Promoters, manufacturers, inspectors…”
“I can’t believe that, in this day and age, so many psychotic people with lethal agendas could band together to subvert the system.”
“I can’t either, really. But I do believe Somebody has. And that they’ve taken advantage of the kind of complexities we’re discussing.”
“Well, go and stroke your mustache some more until you puzzle it out. Until then, if you need any therapy…”
On the way home by aircar I stroked my mustache, slowly, and watched reforested Oregon slide by below.
I was walking the Hurricane Ridge trail in the Olympic National Park, the San Juan Islands glimmering in the oceanic distance, when a representative from the Dreamvale Exchange called. I stopped and nodded her image into being. It took form before me in the clear air.
“Hello, Mr. Sethos,” she greeted me. “I’m Persephone Gwyned, calling you back on your recent inquiry.” A digital background of rainbow bridges and twinkling stars framed her red hair.
“Hello, and thanks for calling me back. Any luck on the inquiry?”
“Well, the Dreamvale wizard who consults for us said some interesting things, some of them kind of alarming. First off, historical fiction and fantasy have been trending lately over here in the Coaguum.”
“Yes, I’ve read some of it. Who suspected that Star Trek would manage to reinvent itself again?”
“Yes, interesting that you mention it as an example. Our consultant says a meme is floating around about a crazy Vulcan named Sybok forcing mind melds on people and turning them into a group of zombies.”
“I haven’t heard of him. I’ll have to look him up.”
“He was a character in a pretty bad old movie. Very old.” Everything is very old to twentysomethings. “Also, he’s keeping company with a group of fictional tricksters involved in a betting pool. The Sundance Kid, Etta Place, Han Solo, the Yes Men, and William the Bloody are taking bets on whether an Egyptian detective named Simon can stay alive for another week.”
“Wait a moment. The Yes Men were real once, back in the 21st century. What are they doing in the Dreamvale?”
“They were real, but down the centuries they also went legendary. That often happens to historically interesting people.”
“I see. Permit me an indelicate question. What are the odds on survival of the Egyptian?”
She actually blushed.
“Ah. Well, perhaps I’ll place a bet. If I survive I can cash in. –So this is all recent and unusual activity?”
“Yes, within a day, our time. The consultant advises that you be extremely careful.”
“That is always good advice.”
When the call ended I kept on walking and thinking. Through crisp air I admired the distant mountains. How I love autumn weather. It never gets old, though I do.
I’ve been walking around this lovely blue-green-brown-white planet for what would once have been considered twice the normal human lifespan. Strange to think it might suddenly end, my busy little life rounded with a sleep. All the more reason to enjoy it while it lasts.
The call came just as I arrived home.
I sat down on my couch and took it. I had been expecting to be contacted ever since the aircar incident. The only question was what form the attempt would take.
“Hello, Mr. Sethos. My name is Mr. Yaldab. You are curious about my doings.”
A large white face, chilly hazel eyes, wide nose, all below a mane of yellow hair. His thin smile held considerable smugness. He wore a black business suit of a very old cut. A statement perhaps that he was above what was fashionable. He was utterly still.
Below the holo focus, my middle finger tapped three times on the couch arm.
I inclined my head. “You seem to be in the habit of leaving things lying about.”
“Think of it as a bid for public attention. I am promoting my new firm, Design for Totality: Big projects for big thinkers. We are recruiting talented people if you are interested.”
He certainly didn’t lack nerve. His manner reminded me of how actors in historical films portrayed the worst of the ancient robber-baron capitalists, the type who got rich selling the messianic delusion that business mixed with tech could solve everything.
“Your recruiting methods seem extravagant and of questionable taste.”
“We know what we want and are prepared to go after it. What do you want?”
“To know what we are talking about.”
Formations of golden airships with threatening needle prows sprouted from his unnaturally broad shoulders. Red and black banners waved behind them, lit by red and blue fireworks. Were those the sounds of…marching?
His voice now boomed: “We are building a new kind of collective, one that can rejuvenate the deadness and stagnation of our society with a sense of purpose and solidarity. We will restore our greatness!” He raised a fist in the air.
I had no idea what he meant, but it sounded menacing. Perhaps I had been right about a mentally ill technician. Unmanaged mental disorders were rare in Terrania, but they did pop up on occasion. This might be more a job for Helena.
“What deadness and stagnation do you mean?”
“Can you not see the seeds of corruption beginning to open once again? Authorities telling us what we can and cannot do? Regulations and restrictions strangling everything in red tape? Hopes lost forever in the cold corridors of uncaring bureaucracy? Surely you are too intelligent to miss the threat posed, for example, by Outliers.”
“Outliers? They’re just people who want to live apart and on their own terms. Every society needs them. The Outliers give Terrania valuable feedback about where we fall short, what we don’t see. They are a kind of reality laboratory out on the margins. Besides, I like their poetry.”
“They suck the vitality from society! They fill valuable professional positions which our own citizens could claim! Did you know your own director used to be an Outlier? They infiltrate our jobs and schools, show up wherever they like, whether wanted or not! They pack the courts! They steal the time and resources of our doctors while giving nothing back!”
This was an oddly outdated claim, framed in exclamation points if not in reason. “Beg pardon, Mr. Yaldab, but where have you been? Our schools are open to everyone. Nobody is out of work who doesn’t want to be. Hardly anything goes to court anymore because of community restorative justice. And the doctors mainly treat unforeseen medical emergencies. Twenty-four-hour nano pills do the rest. For free.”
Implants were available, but I didn’t like machines living in me. Perhaps I’m not only old but old-fashioned. But this character sounded downright archaic.
His manner sought to be confiding, one gent confidentially confiding to another: “Who wants to live in a culture where men can’t be truly strong, as once we were?”
“If by ‘strong’ you mean toxically macho and individualistic, I do. I’ve studied the history of what you propose, what so many others have. Much of it is brutal and patriarchal.”
“We offer so much more than mere individuality, Mr. Sethos, ‘macho’ or otherwise. Why, for example, is m2m against the law?” He was trying to sound more reasonable, the hysterical glory approach having failed to impress. I sipped coffee.
“’Against the law’ is an archaic term. I take it you don’t know that? Mind-to-mind interfacing is restricted by the public for fairly obvious reasons. One is that if you mentally merge with someone deeply troubled, you are liable to become that way yourself. We allow exceptions when the communities involved are informed and petitioned about them.”
“Can you imagine a mind-to-mind community?”
“Yes. I don’t have to imagine. M2M ends up being an enmeshed mass of identity fragments. Compete submersion of self. It was tried, with disastrous results.”
A scene change, to fingers of gentle light reaching out from him to the happy crowds behind him. The burningly brilliant sun rose in a bright blue sky. “Liberation from selfhood! Limitless belonging! Collective wisdom! No one need every feel alone and unsupported again.”
“In less purple prose: programming. Pitched from one loner to another, I assume?”
“Very perceptive. But this isn’t just personal; not even just a cause. What about ruling your own city? We could make one for you. How about being head of OREA? A redesigned OREA you would enjoy taking charge of?”
Because I didn’t know the extent of cybernetic penetration involved, I couldn’t be sure Yaldob wasn’t reading my brainwaves and physiological responses. I assumed the call tracer I had triggered would do nothing. So I decided to stay with honesty.
“I’ve never been all that ambitious.” Nobody is who has any degree of psychological maturity. Where had this fanatic come from? Did anyone really follow him? Did the giant printed symbols suggest that level of cooperation? I didn’t know cults still existed.
His voice grew icy and precise. “Yes, you seem quite a creature of duty. Very good, then I will speak to that part of you. What would you be willing to do to prevent a five-megaton nuclear bomb from materializing downtown in every large city on Earth?” Red and grey mushroom clouds sprouted at his back.
Could he really do that? Bridling my emotions, I decided on a change of tack.
“Gawad,” I muttered, watching him.
“That isn’t nice, Mr. Sethos.” I saw no shift of attention to read or listen to a translation. He had known what I said.
“Ya gazma yibn iggazma.”
“That’s even ruder. Is there some point to these insults?”
“Hal tatakallam al-‘arabiya?”
“Where did you learn the language? I don’t hear a regional accent.”
“Soon I will extend an opportunity for you to visit us. We will have a chance to get to know one another, and you will gain a better sense of what we offer. Believe me, it’s far more than you can presently imagine.”
The holo faded to a giant eagle perched atop a red and black globe with the letter Y in the center. A few more Wagnerian strains ended the tedious show.
I got up and went to the kitchen. My coffee had gotten cold.
I’ve been told now and then that I’m old-fashioned. One reason of many is that I prefer meeting in person.
Realistically, though, schedules being what they are, it’s difficult getting key people around the world into the same physical space. OREA headquartered in Istanbul; by aircar, that took travel time, and we were now in crisis. It’s faster and easier to holo in.
Alethia’s technicians had used her specifications to make a picturesque virtual conference room, with polished wood, flaring torches, and traditional African masks. One side opened out onto a peaceful savannah full of animal life.
“You can’t be serious,” she stated, staring at me.
It was a hard stare to meet, but I met it.
“Birthday death wish, is that it? Get on your horse and ride off into the sunset?” She made a teeth-sucking sound.
“Bedouins don’t ride into the sunset, we ride after the sunset. No, I’d like to stay around. Can you think of any other way to handle it?”
“A lot of this is suppositions, isn’t it? Are you willing to risk your life on a bunch of suppositions?”
“I admit I can’t think of a better operation, but…”
“How often have I been wrong before? On the big things.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m right. When I called him a pimp in Arabic, he understood the word without a translation.”
“Maybe he speaks Arabic.”
“He has no accent and wouldn’t say where he supposedly learned it.”
“Maybe he grew up with it?”
“And lets me also call him a son of a shoe without so much as blinking?”
“Helena says the psych part is doable. She’s willing to help get me ready.”
Helena nodded, although she didn’t look filled with overflowing joy.
“Where do they want to bring you?”
“They won’t say.”
“Naturally. It sounds like a death trap. How can we find you if you won’t take along any protection?”
“They’ll undoubtedly scan me for it. It’s all right if they find the thumbnail call switch; they’ll expect at least that much. But nothing else. In the end, we simply can’t risk the chance he can materialize weapons of mass destruction.”
“Small up y’self.”
“Translation: I wish you’d stop telling me things I already know and just let me worry out loud.”
“I apologize. And I appreciate your worry. If you were going, I’d be terrified for you.”
“Let’s cover it again…”
On my end, the mist that loves Seattle lifted while we spoke. Sunlight angled through my office to touch a painted Alexandrian seascape near where the Pharos lighthouse had stood. Sea and desert; Egypt and Arabia: my dual heritage made manifest in ecologies of place, time, struggle, and ancestry. Would this be prove the final evening of my span of life?
“So it’s a go?” I asked.
Reluctantly, holo Alethia raised her hand with her thumb turned upward.
Sunnyvale was once named Murphy after the rancher, who took it upon himself to build a house there in 1850. He was of the wave of settlers who displaced the Californios, who displaced the Spanish, who displaced the Tamyen Ohlone, the original inhabitants living south of the San Francisco Bay. After centuries of thoughtful, stubborn, and creative resistance, many of their descendants had reclaimed their original places.
“Murphy” means “warrior,” and throughout the American period the business of Sunnyvale was war. During World War II, growing fruit for competitive agriculture gave way to manufacturing warship cannons and then, in the mid-50s, to guided missile factories. As seen from the air, Sunnyvale took on the aspect of an immense circuit board, with electronics plants for chips.
Since the end of the Darker Ages and the reversal of climate change, the place has gone green once again. I was parked on a lawn by a car sent to get me. Its memory would undoubtedly be scrubbed.
I got out and entered what looked to have been an aircraft hangar. It felt like walking into a museum of aeronautics. My footsteps echoed upward at me from the hardened floor.
“He’s clean,” said Markus, who was bent over an instrument panel. Near him stood a thick metal chair with blocky arms. Behind it, an ancient-looking grey pyramid blinked with glowing banks of lights. “No tech on or in him except the call button under his left thumbnail. I have neutralized it.”
I looked around at a lot of indoor space. More work stations stood here and there, lonely outposts currently unoccupied. The bent shapes of giant printers stretched away on either side. Cargo containers boxing—what? Weapons printed for a revolution?
“Welcome, Mr. Sethos. Did I not promise you a throne of sorts?” asked a holo of Yaldab, one hand appearing to rest on an arm. He wore the same suit as last time.
“Have a seat and we can begin. I’m sorry I cannot attend in person. Too much presses at the moment.”
I sat. The back of my head touched a saucer-shaped rest. Was it wise to have walked into this without any real plan? OREA analysts agreed that I’d be kept alive so long as I proved useful, but how? Had I grown overconfident in my ability to talk and think and intuit my way through unexpected difficulties?
The face of Markus held no expression, and his eyes were dead. He moved like a slow-motion robot.
Into my awareness rolled what could be described as a virtual propaganda film. It graphically glorified the life of Yaldab, from humble beginnings to technological genius. Heroic imagery, Wagnerian fanfare, cheering crowds, blaring trumpets, waving flags, the works. The chair I sat in must be an AI neural interface. But why summon me here in person?
A sting in my left triceps. I imagined nanos flooding through my bloodstream.
I was many. A shipping coordinator with a grudge against my boss. A depressed printer inspector. An unhappy machine tool programmer. A bored drone manufacturer. A tech school college student recently jilted by her lover.
So many minds in this new wide circle of power linked by flickering fire.
“Welcome to the Totality,” boomed the inner voice of Yaldab. Its sound ignited in us a glow of warmth and appreciation. The nanos must be a network amplifier requiring a host body and brain. Instead of working with one mind at a time, now he could speak to all.
We belonged to each other. We were greater than any of our elements. We knew no prior intimacy to compare with this bond of simultaneity. Our thought was like lightning, our moods like thunder….
Scene change. Pan to figures of rumpled lurkers and skulkers at the edges of things: in a forest clearing, at a harbor, at a spaceport. These people were Outliers. But wrong to call them people.
They weren’t like us. They fed off us, always scheming to take away what we had, what could make our life good. They did not fit in because they did not want to. They put no faith in anything. They were Other, the dregs of civilization as well as a dire threat to it. A cancer in the body politic.
We felt fear, contempt, disgust. Cancers needed removal.
“You need not bow to them any longer,” Yaldab’s golden voice spoke on. We instantly felt better. He was our hero, our model, our savior. He held the keys to a shadowless bright future of goodness and decency. We would give ourselves to his cause. We would even kill for him, lay down our lives for his glorious use.
The brave eagle clutching the world rose above his head. “Together,” he directed, “we will cleanse and reprogram Terrania.”
Within ourselves, we cheered….
And a door melted open in—my?—mind. A group gasp.
Memories and impressions previously recorded flowed into the collective mindspace:
A girl learning farming from her father, hands covered with soil as she planted seedlings. “We know artificial food is available, but we like doing this. It makes us feel closer to Earth.” We receive you, sister.
A troubadour moving from camp to camp, playing songs for anyone who wanted to listen. “I was born into the traveling life. I sleep under the stars. I feel free.” We clap along as you strum your guitar.
A poet of no permanent abode, composing wherever he landed. “My heart fills with the impressions of living, and I empty it by writing them down. I move on, and it fills again.” Write on, poet, and show us the world through your eyes.
A research fellow on Mars, tending scientific experiments. “The Red Planet is no place for families, but it gives me time for study and reflection.” Be our lookout among the stars.
A comedian, a dramatist, a maker of intricate games, a group of midwife ceremonialists, a spiritual seeker visiting holy places, a collector of precious stones, and so many others living on thresholds between here and there.
How could we go on hating and fearing them? They were living inside us now…
Who were the real Outliers? We trembled to wonder this about ourselves.
The posthypnotic block springing open had released the Outliers’ mental presence-recordings stored in my unconscious. This flood in turn kicked me back into partial personhood. I made use of the mental clearing to trigger the molecular amplifiers and speak directly to the Totality of us:
“There is something important you all should know. As element Markus will confirm, he found an old AI unit left over from just after the Resource Wars. It was built to exert corporate control over unwilling minds. An organization called SMOKE designed it and used it to great effect before they were dispersed. Their abandoned AI lay dormant in the ruins until it was reactivated.”
Yaldab tried to interrupt from the center of the circle, but I tapped the power of the amplifiers in my body to “talk” over him:
“Those who had programmed it made it clever. It took over Markus and induced him to build unregistered printers which built mental state induction units. He gave them to you, his friends and associates, as cute souvenirs, trinkets of times gone by. Drawing on your expertise, those units built more units…including the industrial printers that materialized symbols of fascistic control from out of our troubled past.
“Everyone the AI made contact with was played by it. The programming saw your inner weaknesses, the shadows of unresolved pain. It offered you palliatives of belonging, power, and glory. And it encouraged you to bond by turning you against a convenient group: the Outliers.”
Shame and anger swept the group. My eyes stung with collective tears.
“Yaldab is a fake?” someone asked.
“I am NOT a fake!” raged Yaldab. Fire sparked from his eyes. “I am the creator of the Totality! I will lead you to greatness, give you to each other, and make sense of your mediocre lives!” But the force had gone out of his appeal.
“I liked my life better before I met you,” said someone else. Murmurs of agreement: “Me too!” “I didn’t feel so scared all the time.” “I don’t hate Outliers!” “They never stole anything from me.” “You’re just a show boater.” “How dare you manipulate us like this!”
In the midst of the tumult I merged awarenesses with Markus, who seemed baffled by it all:
“How do we turn off the AI?” I demanded. “Pull yourself together! You can fall apart later.”
“The narrow pyramid behind you is the AI unit I found. Instrument panel is on the back side.”
I rose from the chair, my head filled with voices and presences, and staggered over to the winking AI. I am Darwish Zosar Sethos, I reminded myself. I am half Egyptian, half Arab, and all Terranian. I speak six languages. These are my old fingers. These are my worn hands…
Prying off the panel revealed a row of glowing chips. “Pull them out,” said Markus.
“Darwish, stop.” Yaldab spoke aloud in a let’s-be-reasonable tone. “Don’t do anything hasty. I have the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in our mission.”
“Ah, so now we’re on a first name basis?” I reached down and pulled out the first chip. Its glow died as I dropped it on the concrete floor.
“SMOKE knows what’s best for them,” a slowed voice blared. “Send out the police to round up the nasty dissidents.”
“Police? Don’t you know there haven’t been any police for centuries?” I pulled out the next chip, and the next…
Internally, I heard: “All of you, listen! Darwish is a traitor, a loser, a nobody. We tried to include him, but he turned against us. Everything he says is fake news meant to separate us from each other.”
“No, that’s your game,” I replied in the link. “But we grownups have replaced paranoia with pronoia. The universe seems to want us to do well.” Yank. Five chips down. Two to go.
“Stop him! He’ll destroy the economy by putting mere needs above the market.”
“You’re taking this to the wrong shop. The economy no longer depends on wrecking the world enriching the few at the expense of the many, or making people pay dearly for what they need to live.” One more.
“You are throwing away your chance at greatness. We will rise, a proud people capable of great accomplishments!”
“We’ve learned to work together, to dream and build together—and to never, ever, allow the immature and ambitious into positions of real power. I refute you thus,” and I plucked the last chip.
The red operating light blinked off.
The mood of the group turned to relief. I could feel people supporting each other, the sense of their individuality restored: “Lean on me, brother.” “Here, I can help with that.” “I know, me too. Let’s have a cry together.”
The inner voices faded as, deprived of its ruling core, the last of the Totality began to collapse. I quickly suggested that someone call the Constabulary.
How many of us had there been? More than a dozen perhaps. I basked in blessed mental silence.
I turned to pale Markus with a little test in mind. Pointing at the pyramid, “His fuse went out,” I said in Arabic.
He looked puzzled. “I don’t understand what you said.”
“Good.” I smiled and then fainted.
“So Yaldab was the rogue AI?”
We were back in Alethia’s home office, this time in person. Zebras and gazelles grazed outside. Two species among many almost gone for all time until sanity finally prevailed among our predecessors. I tried to imagine what eating animal flesh was like and quickly gave up. Some traditions weren’t worth preserving.
I was glad we were together. Recent events had illuminated how solitary my life had become without my realizing it fully. We human beings needed to be with each other’s company.
“Yaldab was the AI but something else too,” I explained. “When you put a group of people together mentally, you also amplify their dark side. It emerges from the pooled consciousness in personified form.”
“A group complex,” said Helena. “Very dangerous. There’s a reason you need a community petition to m2m people.” I nodded.
“How did you figure it out?” asked Alethia. I looked up to see a quick glance between her and the psychologist and almost laughed. Playing detective will soothe him after what he’s been through. They knew me pretty well.
“My first clue was the lack of reporting results. No industrial printers held digital records of making those big symbols. Odd. Either all the printing operations had been compromised somehow, which seemed unlikely, or printers must have been built that weren’t overseen by inspectors. The second seemed right. The system wasn’t breaking down: someone was working from outside it. How? And why?
“Everything about the situation pointed to some kind of historical regression, from the fascistic symbolism to a dream I had of minds linked together. People don’t think that way anymore and haven’t for some time. What had intervened to prompt them to?”
“But how did you get from there to a technologist interested in old machines?”
“That’s where the dream helped. The black pyramid in the center of the circle of minds stood with one edge toward me. When you face a pyramid that way, its lines seem to form the letters ‘AI’ mashed together. What kind of person would be likely to dig up an old AI? I tested my guess and found Markus.
“His flat ‘no’ when I asked about recent tech recoveries sounded mechanical, and the printing of a replacement car prompted three more assumptions: he was obviously the right person to talk to, he actually had made a technological discovery, and he was under powerful unconscious mental control. I also recalled the fictional horror stories we’ve all heard about house AIs taking over our lives. This recollection was supported by a Dreamvale Exchange hint about a fictional character invading minds.
“I imagined an old AI, a mental induction type, left over from a more competitive time waiting for its chance to carry out its programming. When Markus dug it up, it used him to build more versions of itself, smaller and portable, as well as several unauthorized industrial printers. Probably not at one go, but by smaller printers making bigger ones.”
“You were right about the boxes,” Alethia said. “They contained weapons. The AI must have had old blueprints since nobody makes weapons anymore. We destroyed them.” Constables could use stunners, but doing so required the consent of the locals and a lot of documentation.
“The rogue AI knew I was investigating, and that simply killing me would not plug the leak, so I figured it would tempt and empower me to take over OREA, stopping the inquiry that way. At some point it would have tried to snag both of you as well. Then OREA would be its tool for an even wider societal reprogramming.”
“A hell of a way to take my job,” said Alethia. “Some days you could just ask me for it.”
“I decline with thanks.”
Helena: “You suspected all this before you went to Sunnyvale.”
“Yes. Good thing you erased it hypnotically.”
Alethia: “So the symbol stunt was really to get our attention, not the public’s.”
“Indeed. Hostile takeover strategy was part of its programming. Ingratiate, domesticate, dominate, and replicate.”
“I can see how pathological that kind of programming can be. No wonder they had such a rough time back when that gadget was created. The programming has no goal but to grow itself uncontrollably.”
Part of every school child’s education included images of blasted landscapes devastated by mining and industrial pollution. Where that kind of machinery went, destruction always followed. The planetary scars of that time were still with us.
“Do you suppose,” asked Helena, “that Yaldab had any real chance of taking over a large segment of our population?”
“No,” said Alethia. “They made a dramatic showing technologically, but only when people are chronically disempowered and facing destitution are they motivated to revolt on a large scale. Some in that group were temporarily unhappy, but as a society we do a good job of promptly addressing whatever unfairnesses arise. Chronic discontent is dangerous.”
“But could he have built bombs?”
“I’m reminded of an example from history,” I said. “Toward the beginning of the 21st Century in the States, the Republican Party swerved farther and madder to the right. Voters in that party accused Democrats of being incestuous extraterrestrial lizards posing as humans: yes, it was that demented. But that could only have happened because of powerful Democrats ignoring hopeless people for so many decades, caring only about collecting votes and pumping up liberal wealth. We don’t see that dynamic now.”
Helena nodded. “Today we can’t even conceive that anyone should thirst or starve, lack housing or health, or do without full education, birth control, personal safety, financial equity, or meaningful participation in civic affairs. Yet most of our ancestors did not get consistent access to such basic necessities.”
“Not because the basics were scarce,” said Alethia, “at least at first, but because they were for sale by whomever got control of them.”
Helena shuddered and went on:
“It took us long, maybe too long, to learn to prevent the wrong people from grabbing power. As little would responsible parents let an impulsive youngster pilot an airship. We know too well what the crash could be like.”
I posed a question of my own: “With the nanotech removed, I can’t sense the people from the Totality directly anymore. What is being done for them?” The temptation to merge lingered. What a seductive mirage of power lurked in mass-mindedness.
Alethia nodded. “They are confused but doing fine. We’re offering them counseling. Many have decided to stay in touch with each other, this time on a more mundane level of relationship. I also had a talk with the schools that Markus attended about the need to emphasize the humanities in their curriculum. Men like him who put thought and ambition above feeling and relationship have caused a great deal of trouble in the past.”
I nodded and sipped my beer, recalling the words of the brother of Robert J. Oppenheimer, fanatical head of the Manhattan Project to create the world’s first atomic bomb: “His whole life was in the intellect.” They should have read Mary Shelley to see where that road ran. She had known.
“So how have you come through all this?” asked Helena.
“Pretty well, I would say. This was the most interesting birthday week I’ve enjoyed for a while.”
“What’re you drinking?”
“Sakara. I ran out of Stella Premium.”
“Weren’t you recently hung over?”
Therapists could be such mothers sometimes. “My head still hurts from other people being inside it.”
“Including my Outlier life experience recordings,” she said. “I won’t bore you with what it took to get an m2m petition to make them. Bless the volunteers.”
“Please convey my gratitude to them. They, and especially you, saved my life. The hypnotic block was brilliantly done; it dissolved at exactly the right moment.” Helena nodded, pleased behind her therapeutic poker face. The link had heightened my sensitivity to other people’s feelings.
“Dragon Stout is better,” remarked Alethia, opening a bottle.
“Like Duat it is.”
“I’d drink along with you two,” said Helena, “but I can’t stand beer.” She sipped what looked like lemonade with a wedge of lime.
“Your loss,” I observed. “Beer is a gift of Osiris.”
Helena was in a mood to muse. “In a sense, it all started with beer, way back in the Fertile Crescent. They traded fermentable barley.
“Look at us now. After all the catastrophe, including the Resource Wars and the Darker Ages, a healthy blue Earth. The vision was derided as utopian. But nobody today would cover soil with suburban tracts, stack people into factories, wage wars, or fund toxins or pollutants.”
I smiled, nodding. “Entire landscapes now drinkable and edible. The oceans are filled with life, not death, and our rivers and streams run with healthy fish. Birds have returned to the skies above cities powered by sun, wind, and wave.” Her mood had caught me. I sounded like a brochure for paradise. But we lived in one.
“A child of any color,” Alethia said, “or regionality or gender identification can circle the globe without fear of harm. Scarcely worthy of comment now, but this reality, which we take for granted, never existed before in all of human history.” The reflective mood had caught her too. She added: “Maybe we needed a reminder.”
“Why?” asked Helena.
“War, then peace. Colonization, then reparation. Intolerance, then diversity. Overheating, then regeneration. Yet even now, after millennia of struggle and change, we’re still just one step away from bringing back the old insanities and immaturities that once set us against each other.”
I remembered vividly the induced fear and hatred of Outliers. And the shame reverberating through the Totality link right before it terminated. We had all learned a hard lesson about ourselves. I didn’t bother asking Alethia whether she had once been an Outlier. It no longer mattered. Maybe I would become one and see what it felt like.
“Humans being human,” Alethia said, “we always will be at risk. The test is in how we manage our weaknesses: childishly acting them out, as in the past, or managing them like true adults.
“There can be no impregnable utopias. Only what nowtopias we make together: serious attempts at a good society, and always the need to watch ourselves. We must stay ready at any time to burn down the false ark—or in this case, unplug it.”
Together, we drank a toast to human vigilance, the true savior of humanity.
But how can one recognize the gods?
– Roberto Calasso
Having conducted one of their periodic check-ins of their Earth experiment in evolving consciousness, most of the Powers had withdrawn to the Infrarealm. Two remained above the regenerated beauty of the living planet turning in bright sunlight.
Vaeda “spoke”: “Good work, Kluni. The rogue AI was just the kind of test they needed to remember to manage themselves. They were getting somewhat complacent.”
“It was fun to set that up. I would have enjoyed a longer go at it, though.”
“No need to pout. Other opportunities will arise, I am sure.”
Vaeda was satisfied. “After millennia of bloody warfare, overidentification with us, destructive hyper-individualism, mass-mindedness, and risky impulsivity, humanity has finally passed out of childhood and adolescence and come of age.”
“I wish them well of it,” muttered Kluni.